Black Beauty (my mountain bike) and I left Ashland in late afternoon, a bike and run mission was on order to enjoy the Sunday evening. The original plan was a bike and run up Pilot Rock, though on my way past Emigrant Lake it was clear that her head was in the clouds. I rerouted up above Buckhorn Springs to Tyler Creek Road. At the Green Springs Summit pulled off the backpack and swapped my bike shoes for running shoes, lycra shorts for running shorts, checked to make sure I had my crystal in my pocket, today’s choice a purple amethyst, and set off to run some of the PCT.
The golden, high, prairie grass captured the sunlight like a fishing net, rays of gold wriggling and moving in the late afternoon breeze. The sky clear, blue, soft white islands of cloud suspended in the sky on the wide horizon. Swaths of aspen swales lined a small creek, attracting my eye like a peacock’s displaying its feathers. Occasionally I would pull the amethyst from my pocket and holding up between the sun and my eye as I ran.
Deeper in the trees the light made its way through the dark, mossy trunks in long soft rays. I ran smiling through the golden ribbons among the trees, occasionally passing through open meadows full of star thistle and grass gleaming in the sun as it slowly set. The air, slowly cooling, drew the earthy smells of the forest floor up to my nose, into my lungs. I was well into the sensory simplicity that, when coupled with movement, brings me the peace, clarity, and presence to truly enjoy every aspect of nature.
About two miles from my bike, and nearing the end of my run, I entered a section where the trees were huddled together on the steep hillside. Darker, denser, and quieter. Looking ahead of me I was surprised to see something moving along the trail about 70 yards away. I’ve seen animals on trails before, an indecisive squirrel, skittish deer, bobcats, coyotes, bear, badger, and other animals flying down the trail spooked by the sound of my bike or pounding feet.
This was different. In size, shape, and in that it wasn’t running away, and seemed to be casually walking down the trail. And it was big, the width of the animal’s shoulders and frame obscuring the entire path.
My eyes started at a long tail, and slowly tracked up along its back. The alternating up and down motion of the front shoulders was elegant and graceful, though, in the moment, reminded me of the, “predator stalking his prey”, moment in the National Geographic specials I watched as a kid on PBS. I realized, what I was seeing, what I had met, was a large cougar.
I thought I might be able to make a quiet exit, that maybe he didn’t notice me charging up behind him, and I could just back away like we never met. Right about the time my brain finished the logic of it, the cougar slowly turned his massive head, looked back over his right shoulder, and stared straight into my eyes. As if to say, “Yeah, I heard you a long way back there, you didn’t surprise me. And in case you didn’t notice, I weigh more than you, and am kind of a big deal here in this forest.”
Stay still, make yourself look big, don’t turn and run. Did the person who came up with this cougar survival advice ever come up on one wearing only thin running shorts and a sweaty t-shirt? Far from any other humans, and having been raised by optimistic parents who taught me anything is possible, perhaps even outrunning a cougar, I decided to run. Now having to back track the previous hour of trail and hills, though that was the last thing on my mind as I sprinted, slowing every couple minutes to stop my breath, open my ears, and scan the treed slope above me.
I checked my pocket for my amethyst, for at least some bit of comfort or security. I quickly discovered that it had fallen out, likely during my first few violent strides. I was saddened, but later thought that maybe the cougar decided not to chase me down after coming upon the crystal in the path, maybe he is even wearing it around his neck instead of the rabbit’s foot he was wearing before.
The sun was setting, and I wanted to get back to my bike, out of the woods, and on my ride home, before dark hit. The thought of a paved road seemed like bliss. The next few miles I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being stalked, that the cougar was just waiting for the right moment. I did my best to make weird human noises, and once I got back to the gravel road for the last few miles found some empty beer cans to crush and bang together as I ran.
After the adrenaline settled, recounting the story to friends and my parents on the phone, I took time to reflect. My initial reaction was fear, for my safety and life, that the cougar would run me down and eat me up. Some online research revealed that cougar attacks are extremely rare, and of those, not often fatal. Every day I am in close contact with what could be seen as life threatening encounters, statistically much more so than a potential cougar attack: careless drivers, crazed people, lightning strikes, natural disasters.
In many indigenous cultures, from sharks in Polynesia to panthers in the Everglades, seeing a large predator in its element is a blessing, gift, and totem of strength. I assume that these people spent enough time in nature, observing the animals and their actions, establishing a connection, to know that the animal was not out hunting for human. Their observations became experience, which became knowledge, and became comfort and safety, and an appreciation for the animal’s strength and role in the health of the forest, and ultimately the health of the human community as well.